Christmas: A Time to Give Back

You know it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas when you’re patrolling the parking lot for the envied spot near the front entrance of the mall, or hoping to get any spot at all for that matter.

It is overwhelming when you think about how many gifts to buy, how much food to make, cleaning the house, and preparing for travel or travelers on the way. It happens every year and can become pretty monotonous.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Every year, one group of people decides to not just celebrate the holiday season, but give of themselves as well. They have figured out what the true spirit of giving is all about.

Howard Culbertson, a professor at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, has organized the Mexico mission trip every year since 1990. The group has traveled to Mexico City, Cuidad de Valles, where they’ve actually visited a series of Indian villages, Monterrey, Tampico, Guadalajara and Juarez.

This year will be a “repeat” trip back to Monterrey, where they plan on working on eight construction sites, two medical sites/clinics and eight Vacation Bible Schools. Any area they visit has to have the facilities to house and feed 200 or more of their workers, and it has to be within driving distance of the border, to keep the investment lower than it would be with airfare.

Another planned venue on the trip is to take time to shop the open markets for holiday gifts. These people often invest their Christmas budget into the missions trip for their immediate family’s gift, but still have a variety of gifts to buy for other friends and family.

The open markets provide a short break from work, and offer everything from handmade jewelry to blankets, purses and more. This helps stimulate the local economy; however, Culbertson stresses that the purpose is not only to invest time or thought into the economic situation in Mexico, but to invest in lives.

It is not just simply how they’ve invested in the community or how many bricks are laid, but how many relationships are built. It is about spiritual needs over economics. The purpose is to get to know the community as “people.” A lot of lives are changed through this process, and they’re not just always the lives of those affected in Mexico, but also of those involved in the mission.

Howard talks of one of the most awesome transitions he can remember: “Around the SNU campus one young lady always looked like she had just stepped out of a magazine. Her hair was always in place; her makeup was on. Her clothes were perfect. Nothing was out of place. I wondered how she always managed to stand out like that. Where did she find the time?

“The young lady had dreamed of graduating from college and moving into a career, probably in business, in which she would make a lot of money and could fulfill her dream of living at a fairly high level.

“Then she let some friends talk her into joining them on SNU’s New Year’s holiday missions trip. Her group went for a week to a little Indian village in the interior of Mexico. For the first couple of days she struggled to keep up her immaculate magazine-model appearance.

“The Indians were poor. The streets were just dirt. Barefoot kids were everywhere playing in the dirt in their ragged clothes.

“At first the young collegian was repelled by them. She stood stiffly around them with a smile frozen on her face. Then their smiles began to break through to her. About the third day she knelt down to one. The little girl reached out for a hug. Before the young lady from SNU realized what she had done, she had wrapped her arms around the dirty but smiling little girl.

“During that embrace some things began to dissolve inside the young college student. She came home, changed her major to elementary education and sought out a teaching job in one of America’s inner city schools.”

Some mission groups have one particular group that they cater to; however, at Southern Nazarene University they are more diverse in that they center their trips around families. Some families bring along their 8- and 9-year-old children to expose them to the experience.

Each year the word spreads and SNU now has people coming from each coast to participate. It seems to grow larger every year. This year, the group, which leaves Dec. 26 by charter bus, is preparing for wonderful transitions to take place.

The group usually averages around 200 members, one third of those being repeat mission workers who feel as if the holidays should be spent doing something significant with their time.

Mike Murphy, an engineer who works for Boeing, said this about his experience: “One of the most memorable things for me was making friends with the people of our Mexican church as we worked with them, ate with them, shopped with them, toured the city with them, and fellowshipped with them. We spent a lot of time with our local church and, by the end of the week, we were real close.

“I became good friends with people who can’t even speak my language. I’m looking forward to seeing them next year. And we did all this while at the same time helping their community. What a blessing!”

This annual event is a way not only to bring something tangible back home from the shopping districts, but it brings back a larger education of the people and many lives touched and changed.

Mission trip participants can tell you that by giving of themselves they received the biggest gift of all: knowing they’ve changed one piece of the world and knowing that they made a difference. The mission trip isn’t about a pat on the back, it’s about showing how much you care and want to contribute.

Originally published in the "Holiday Magazine" supplement to the December 8, 2002 "Sunday Oklahoman." Copyright 2002 Oklahoma Publishing Company, Used by permission.